Hans van Meeuwen’s Remembered Worlds

Hans van Meeuwen’s objects astonish. Some of them are so funny that we cannot but laugh: the lonely disembodied paw sticking out of the door of the dog house, a large yellow tent getting away on human legs. With others the humor is more subliminal, more subtle, between the lines, so to speak. Three doors of different colors and sizes are stacked against a wall, the torso of a helicopter floats in space like a large mute cocoon, a headless sailor on a small boat drifts towards the image of the huge head of a dragonfly. These laconic objects are presented without commentary, as if they were self-explanatory. And indeed they remain aloof, as if they did not need the world surrounding them. They rest within their own self-sufficiency. The fact that they correspond to certain objects of the world does not seem to impress them: it is obviously not their raison d’être. This comes as a surprise: these are figurative works of art, after all, that is to say they depict. It makes them unusual and mys-terious. For that which is and does not signify always remains forever incomprehensible. We require the relationships of a web of meaning. Their mystery is that of a Stonehenge, a structure from another time whose purpose we do not know and which we therefore, if grudgingly, have to accept as it is.

But is this entirely true? Do we not also detect a slight resonance in van Meeuwen’s objects? They remind us of something. But what exactly? Not of what they depict, that would be easy. Something rather more elusive, more intangible, like a word on the tip of our tongues that does quite want to get out. Even with the objects that make us laugh we have difficulties pinpointing the exact cause of our amusement. Sure, they all exhibit a certain kind of absurdity, despite their deadpan surfaces. For these objects keep a perfectly straight face, which of course makes them even more hilarious. But does that suffice in explaining their effect? Hardly! It only further piques our curiosity. But where do we start in prying open these obstinately mute objects? For the first impression that we get when facing the objects lingers even at second and third viewing. The continuing mysteriousness might therefore just be their most obvious general content. Our laughter, whether caused by genuine amusement or mere embarrassment, does not really get us anywhere here. We have to pursue it in some other manner. For rarely can we just tolerate mysteriousness: it poses a prob-lem, it irritates and unsettles, and thus forces us to confront it, even if it cannot achieve a final resolution.

Let us start on safe ground, with an analysis of the procedure of the artist, for it is here that we can isolate quite a number of clear strategies. Many of van Meeuwen’s object fragments are parts of a larger unit that seems to have been broken apart. The stork legs in Uiver are easily recognizable as such. They are also, of course, one of the defining characteristics of the animal. But the rest of the body is missing. The same is true for the duck feet in The Landing. It is striking that many of the human fig-ures appear without heads. The Potatoman carries an oversized potato in its place, the Cardboard Box Kid is stuck from the neck up in the cardboard box that is its namesake, the Sunkid is entirely without head, though the sun that connects the two arms gives the appearance of possibly replacing it. The equally headless sailor in Spookrijder at least seems to be in dialogue with the large-scale photograph of the head of a dragonfly, though it remains doubtful to what extent it can be taken as a substitute for his own absent head. But even where the objects are not fragments of a larger whole, they are always taken out of their original context and appear from an entirely new point of view, just as if we saw them for the first time for what they really are. The frequent changes in the scale of the objects further enhances this effect. For the most part the objects appear much larger than life, but in a few instances also ridiculously small. The momentous stork legs give the viewer a inkling of the frogs perspective (quite a change, no doubt), The Ornithologist confronts us with enormous eggs, the Nose would suit a giant, the teeth in Molars have the girth of tree trunks, and Piles gives shape to the nightmare of anybody who has difficulties swallowing his pills. The changes in size are especially noticeable and confusing if they occur within the same object whose various elements adhere to different scales. The chicken feet in Les Vacances are alarmingly big in comparison to the tent where we encounter them, and the potato in Potatoman seems disproportion-ately large in comparison to the child’s body on which it seems to grow (or is it that the head is stuck in the potato?). Many of van Meeuwen’s drawing also derive their bizarre humor from these contrasts, like the crowd of tiny people strolling around on a table like on a lively public square. But that is not all: the elements that make up many of van Meeuwen’s objects are different not only in scale, they also stem from completely different contexts. Their combination therefore often seems quite unexpected and incongruous. Why is the Potatoman wearing a potato on his head, and what are the chicken feet doing in front of the tent? The pills scattered around the hind legs of a horse in Stal are just as perplexing as the three giant noses assembled around a table in Tafel. Is this combination the result of chance, we have to ask ourselves, or does it follow some associative threads that remain enigmatic for now? And if this is the case, where do these amalgamations stem from and what do they signify? Are these private games originating in the psyche of the artist and therefore remain arcane by necessity, or can more general connotations be discerned?

The various methods at work in van Meeuwen’s objects – fragmentation and the combination of heterogeneous elements, abrupt changes of context and of scale, shifts and condensations resulting in new associations, as well as the resulting absurdity – all of these are quite familiar to us from another context: our dreams. There, too, the most diverse objects and actions appear in a narrative that seems perfectly natural to us while dreaming, though it may appear paradoxical and nonsensical in recounting it after we wake up. Even so, van Meeuwen’s objects seem unlikely candidates for the private gratification of Freudian dream interpretation, nor do they correspond to the archetypes of Jungian theory. On the contrary, van Meeuwen’s objects do not seem to have any symbolic function. They appear much too literal for that, much too self-contained. Which is precisely what makes them so hard to read, for their obstinate presentness in the here and now thwarts any facile integration into a ready-made structure of meaning. It even seems that the objects achieve a state of freedom of purpose and function here that they do not ordinarily have. Legs usually fulfill a narrowly circumscribed task, be it transportation or just the support of the body, and it is this function that ties them into a structure of meaning. In this case, however, legs are just legs, for there is no body to transport or support. Thus even the parts do not appear fragmented but autonomous and necessary. Still, in view of the many correspondences in formation the reference to dream images is not entirely misguided, especially once we bracket the interpreting symbolism (whether of Freudian or Jungian provenance). For the symbolism of dreams results not so much from individual images but of their narrative structure. Once we set this aside we can focus on the nature of the individual elements that make up our dreams. Because in the absence of visual perception while sleeping these are images that are already present in the psyche, in other words, remembered images.

But what is so special about memory images? In what way are they different from perceived images? Is there any difference at all, or are remembered images just stored perceived images summoned back up before the mind’s eye? Even if that were the case, we would have to note their mediated nature. Memory images are not images that we observe directly, but rather images that our memory recalls. This, however, is a decisive difference, with remarkable consequences. For a mental process intercedes between perception and the later retrieval of this perception, a process that is not at all a merely passive storage of images. Far from it, this process is an active forming and reforming of the impressions stored in the mind, and it is influenced by a multitude of factors. Of course, we can never fully fathom the precise stages of this development, for it occurs for the most part subconsciously (and here Freud and Jung, who we had just politely but firmly asked to leave, re-enter through the back door). The crucial point is that in this process all of the strategies of mutation that we had discerned in van Meeuwen’s objects come to bear and play an important role. The resulting memory images do not reflect the physical world, but the digestion of this world by the psyche. Both biological and cultural factors contribute to their subjective coloring. The temporal dimension of this cannot be overestimated. It is the shift in time that permits the permutation of impression to take place in this manner, and the longer the duration the more drastic are the changes that we can expect.

The subjective remodeling of our perceptions is not the only thing that occurs in this process. At the same time objects are generalized. This seems contradictory only at first sight, but it is not since it pertains to different elements. Just like pebbles in a stream, complex impressions are reduced to specific, particularly memorable elements in the flow of time, while more individual aspects are worn away. The hind legs of a specific horse become common hind legs that could be screwed on to just about any horse, if they could be screwed on. Despite their individual coloring they thereby acquire a generic character and a certain universality. It is not without reason that the heads are missing in van Meeuwen’s figures, for faces possess an individuality that cannot easily be reconciled with this universality.

This does not, by the way, contradict what I had claimed about the non-symbolic nature of van Meeuwen’s objects. In spite of a certain universality these objects do not represent archetypes. For that they remain far too personal, too witty, too weird, too unexpected. For what is thrown into relief and what is deleted in this transformation process is determined by what, for whatever reason, happened to impress the artist at the time, and what his subjective subconscious set upon as the decisive gestalt of this sensory impression. This explains quite a number of the unusual aspects that we encounter in his objects, why some of the animal parts, for instance, seem perfectly convincing and realistic even though in actual fact they do not fully correspond to what they depict. The marvelous capacity of the brain for transformation appears also in the condensations present in van Meeuwen’s works. The table and chair in Black Holes seem mentally fused into a perfect visual unity. The changes of scale also take on a new meaning in this context, for they tally with the significance of the objects, not their physical size. What is perceived as more important appears larger in memory, the insignificant is reduced or entirely omitted. In any case, our brain remembers most things only in pieces, and is quick at establishing a host of new connections. The fragments in van Meeuwen’s œuvre therefore are not real fragments in the sense of romantic ruins, which were already built as ruins, nor are they fragments in the sense of the fragments of classical sculpture, a stylistic device introduced into modern art by Rodin. Rather they are a kind of synecdoche in the special form of the pars pro toto where the perceived whole has been reduced to the remembered part of it.

The conversion enacted by our memory is thus a kind of subjective abstraction process. The elements that seem irrelevant to the perceiving person are eliminated, the salient features are brought out and (over-) emphasized. Of course this really applies to any mental and artistic process. The conversion of sensory data by the brain is a very common act and forms the basis of our psychology of perception. In our everyday existence, however, we hardly ever notice it, as we tend to equate our perceptions with reality. It is only memory images that make the modifications effected obvious, since the discrepancies between reality and our memory of it are likely to be a lot larger. But even this is only the case if we have a means of direct comparison, for otherwise we again just take our memories as accurate depictions of a reality perceived in the past. It is rarely the case that we are forced to acknowledge the changes imposed on our impressions by our memory. Even though van Meeuwen’s objects foreground this process and make into the subject matter of the work, we are liable to first look elsewhere for a reason for these common effects of the memory process, in some imaginary symbolic language for instance.

The transformations effected in van Meeuwen’s objects by the memory process, how-ever, are intensified by another crucial aspect superimposed onto them. The artist emphasizes that many elements of his work arise from childhood memories. Not only do they stem from a time that in his case lies decades in the past, granting memory a lot of time for creative modification, but they also originate in a completely differ-ent world of perception. The world of childhood not only placed emphasis on entirely different aspects of reality, it also adhered to another structure of thought. The larger-than-life size of many objects might simply at least in part be due to the different perspective of a child, for whom everything seems much larger than for the full-grown adult. The legs of a stork might easily appear to be gigantic, while the rest of the animal is pushed into the peripheral field of vision. In many instances children abide by a logic that is fundamentally unlike that of adults. They regard things in a far less objective fashion, and much more as they pertain to their own person. It is only later that the originally ego-centric logic is mitigated by the larger acquired knowledge of the world and the resulting objectified point of view superimposed onto it. Memory images are more childlike (even with adults) in the sense that the object’s size corresponds to its relevance for us, not to its size in the physical world. How are we supposed to swallow those wretched pills, they just seem far too large! And the chicken feet that we saw in summer camp might have obliterated all other recollections of that summer camp and taken on a size in our memory that is totally disproportionate to their physical size (the latter being completely irrelevant anyhow). (This is, of course pure speculation, for what the combination of chicken feet and tent might mean is anybody’s guess.) Let us not forget that changes of scale are perfectly common for children playing with toy figures: the table top can easily be transformed into a public square filled with people taking a leisurely stroll. The connections established by the logic of children are also quite different in nature from that of adults. They are not yet ruled to the same extent by a logic governed by function. Rather it is temporal or spatial concurrence that are decisive. The paw sticking out becomes part of the dog house, not of the dog – it is only our knowledge, but not our perception that tells us that he has to be there somewhere. If you hold up a potato in front of your eyes so that it conceals the head of a sitting child, you will get the Potatoman: this might have been an image that amused and inspired the child’s imagination and therefore stayed with him. And who knows, the Spookrijder might be a toy sailor on the nutshell of a boat drifting in a pond and surrounded by curiously buzzing dragonflies. Dragonflies who are promptly transformed into helicopters, a mutation that seems perfectly logical in view of their shared flight characteristics, particularly the ability to hover motionless in the air. Who cares that the rotor blades are missing, they are not visible in flight anyway and can therefore be done away with as inconsequential. Not to mention that they can just as well be replaced by our imagination.

So it is the awe-inspiring power of transformation inherent in both memory and the mind of children that is expressed in the van Meeuwen’s objects. It nevertheless remains a grown-up view of this phenomenon, for children do not reflect upon their manner of perceiving the world. Nor can we accuse these objects of being nostalgic, for they exhibit too much delicate humor for such a claim. Van Meeuwen is well aware of the fact that the outlook of children is not entirely benign and peaceful. Fear and destruction also play an important part. The ability of the mind to transform reality also renders darkness threatening by changing shadows into monsters. Like some of van Meeuwen’s objects, that with all their nonsensical appearance might also be somewhat scary.

In the beginning I wrote that van Meeuwen’s objects were characterized by an enduring and inextricable mysteriousness. This is still the case, for the above explanations were all of a general nature, the attempt to interpret his procedure, while leaving the mystery of the individual objects unaffected. This is left to the respective viewer, and there are no signposts to follow. How then should we tackle these objects that do not want to yield to our adult logic? Simple: with amazement and imagination. Simple wonder that does not violate things by forcing them into preconceived structures, but once again accepts them as they present themselves to our perception. And then grants them space for unfettered development in our imagination. The generic nature of these figures allows for any approach we might want to choose. Just as the best toys are those with the least features: not the toy figure modeled in every slight detail and thereby limited to one specific role. But rather the shapeless log that can be Indian chief, deep sea diver or football player, whichever is required at the time. And then again horse or table or phantom jet. Van Meeuwen’s works are ideal objects for the imagination. They provide enough stimulus to get the process going but remain vague enough not to determine its direction. That of course runs counter to our adult urge to control and dominate things. An urge born out of our insecurities. So be it! Here we can and may play again. But first we have to let go.

Martin Oskar Kramer, PhD., Berlin, Germany